Part of me had to laugh. Couldn’t help it.
We had just spread my grandfather’s ashes off the third green at a golf course outside of Pittsburgh, a golf course he was a member at and had played roughly eighty bazillion times in his nearly 90 years on this Earth.
The mood was understandably somber. Yet I could feel those little fits of laughter in my stomach, doing their darnedest to swim upstream, begat from memories with my grandfather at the very same golf course.
A few hours earlier, a priest had delivered a homily, and he had said that when a loved one dies, a part of us – sometimes big, sometimes small – dies with him. I very much respect the priest. He did a nice job and put on a good memorial service. But I’m not sure I agree with that sentiment.
I can’t claim to have much experience with death. I’ve been blessed in that way. Not too long ago, an old friend of mine, Brian Rampolla, committed suicide. A month later, my grandfather died after living one long and damn full life.
In both situations – the only two in which I’ve had to contemplate death up close – I didn’t feel as if anything inside me had died, necessarily. Changed, perhaps. But not dead. Certainly not dead. In fact, I felt quite the opposite. I felt as everything in me – the parts that needed a little jolt – had come that much more alive, as if a dormant electrical circuit in my nervous system had received a surge. As if every memory of my grandfather had once been black and white, and now they were in full HD. As if every lesson I learned – and the ones I didn’t yet know I learned – from Brian and my grandfather that had once been written in size 2, hieroglyphic font was now in size 25, in all caps, in Times New Roman, able to be seen and read that much more clearly.
Perhaps it’s different for me. In the grand scheme of life, I’m relatively young, 28 years old. There’s much yet ahead of me, and in that sense, there’s likely much more I’m able to do with these lessons and memories of my grandfather than others. I’m mindful of that.
But still, I much prefer a message my father said in his eulogy than to the priest’s in the homily. My dad talked about my mom, how she texted him after my grandfather died, saying that this is “really the end, isn’t it?”
“Nah,” he said, “it’s not the end.”
Physically, maybe. But when has anything physical ever lasted? Take a look around you. Everything will eventually die, and the nutrients and spirit and energy from that once-living organism will then nourish the next living thing, and the next. Such is the circle of life.
Such was my dad’s message.
He took a quick glance at a few dozen friends who had made the trek from Baltimore for the funeral. It’s not a short drive. They drove four or five hours both in support of my mom and dad and to show respects for my grandfather, and it’s funny, how everyone in the room seemed to have been impacted by my grandfather, despite him not having any blood relation to any of my parents’ friends. Some said he inspired them to be better grandparents, because they saw how he doted upon my brothers and I. Others spoke of his unfailing humility. Still others of just how damn nice he was, all the time.
We speak often of legacies. In sports, this drives me nuts – What will happen to LeBron’s legacy if he loses with the Lakers? Nothing, hopefully. Legacies aren’t made of metal trophies and diamond rings and silk banners and wins and losses. They’re made of something far sturdier.
They’re made of the fabric of your life.
Most of you reading this didn’t know my grandfather, nor will you ever, lest you’re fortunate enough to play a couple rounds with him in Heaven. But you can still learn from the way he lived his life. I know you can because many of those who read my column on Brian reached out and thanked me for writing it, how they took this or that away from it, despite never knowing Brian, nor ever having the opportunity to do so, lest you’re fortunate enough to shotgun a beer with him in Heaven after playing a round with my grandfather.
That is my hope here as well.
Death is a tricky subject. I’m still feeling out my nascent relationship with it, turning it this way and that, mulling it over. It presents a host of contradictions. It takes the breath out of life yet it’s also the very thing that gives our lives meaning. If we didn’t have a finite number to our days, well, what would be the meaning of each day, then?
Without death, what purpose is there to life? It’s no different than light being meaningless without the dark, north without south, God without the devil, Superman without kryptonite, my grandfather’s beloved Steelers without my beloved Ravens. It is at once devastatingly sad and magnificently inspiring, tear-jerking and heartwarming.
When I went to journal – I do this most every morning, about whatever comes to mind – the day after my grandfather died, my mind turned not to his many, many accomplishments as an athlete, coach and human being, but to traits. His unfailing loyalty, his intense competitiveness and compassionate spirit, his knack for discipline and quickness to forgive, his thunderous strength and gentle demeanor, his unfailing kindness and unflinching nerve.
Those are the types of things that live on, not money or titles or wins or losses or cars or houses, and my grandfather’s legacy will do so for centuries forth from now because there are people alive who can make it so. I see it so much in my dad I sometimes do double-takes. My dad, like my grandfather, was hard yet fair on his boys, molding us into men who will likely do the same with their children. Yet with women, and especially my sisters-in-law, Karen and Sarah, he’s a doting softie, just as my grandfather was for his daughter and wife and daughters-in-law. My dad, like my grandfather, is an absolute rock, so sturdy, so grounded, an anchor to his family, as my grandfather was to his.
In 28 years, I’ve never heard either man complain. My grandfather once told me a story of his days in the Navy, how he stood in his plain white tee, in the freezing rain, though he had to stay outside for some reason.
“Yeah,” he said casually, matter-of-factly, “that was kinda cold.”
He probably had frost-bite and pneumonia, and it was just “kinda cold.” I’ll never forget the time my brothers, grandfather, dad and Uncle Doug played golf at the same course where we spread his ashes. It was either late fall or early spring, I can’t remember exactly. All I remember is that it was freezing, and windy, and my brothers and I, playing ahead of them, took refuge in the clubhouse at the turn and quit.
My grandfather thought this was hysterical. Cold? You think this is cold? Let me tell you about the cold…
Anytime we went to do anything below 80 degrees, he’d wink and ask us if we’d like a jacket, lest it get a bit chilly for his three wimpy grandsons.
We’d laugh and laugh, something he made us do more than anything. For more than two decades now, our massive family has gone on a reunion vacation to Myrtle Beach, coming together for a week of beach games and shenanigans. When we were little, we’d spend the evenings on the deck, sitting on my grandfather’s lap, overlooking the heat storms lighting up the Atlantic Ocean, laughing the night away as he regaled us stories – endless stories – of his younger years. Half the time we’d laugh not at the story, but at my grandfather, who could hardly get through his own stories. He’d be laughing so hard before getting to the funny part. We’d be laughing at his laughing, to the point that a number of his stories went unfinished, drowned in a sea of laughter.
He never did stop telling those stories, and it was funny, too, what happened as time passed: Soon, his favorite stories to tell were the ones of us. Often, to our red-faced embarrassment, he’d tell them to cute waitresses, and when he’d finish they’d be laughing and smiling at this charismatic older gentleman, and he’d wonder “Hey, are you single? Because my grandson over here…”
Indeed, my greatest wingman, the single best charmer I’ve ever met, was 62 years older than me. It’s possible that’s where my love of a narrative, of storytelling, really began, but I do know that since I’ve been able to feel their wondrous power, I never want to stop telling them, whether they be my own stories or those of someone else’s.
And in that sense, you see, a bit of my grandfather didn’t die in me, but remains that much more alive. I will never be the storyteller my grandfather was, though I’ll continue to try, and that’s the point. Just as I’m not sure I’ll be able to love as wholly and completely as my grandfather did. I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who has.
I was walking around my dad’s high school with my mom, who was telling me how much that man meant to her, how she could feel how much she was loved, how she felt like a daughter to him and he was as close to a second father as a man could possibly be to her. To see the impact that a person, once a total stranger to my mom, could have, simply through love, is astounding, honestly. It wouldn’t surprise me if she’s that much more loving when she’s a grandparent, as I’m sure she will be sometime in the not too distant future, because she’s felt the type of impact a grandparent can have. She has seen and felt the effect he’s had on his grandchildren.
Just as his legacy is already coursing through my father’s veins in that his character is becoming a spitting image of my grandfather’s, his capacity for love and caring will be in my mother’s. My little brother, Cody, has inherited his gift for oral storytelling. My older brother, Tyler, his enviable blend of intensely competitive yet compassionate spirit.
For me? I don’t think it will surprise you that I find the biggest similarity I have to my grandfather is our readiness to laugh. He may have been the cause of more laughter than the rest of my family combined, which is considerable, given that our numbers have swelled to more than 70.
In the Bible, Corinthians, 15:55, Paul wonders “Where, O death, is your sting?”
Truth be told, I’ve never understood that verse until now. Death, after all, seemed quite painful, and indeed, there is pain, but it’s the type of pain that reminds you that you’re still alive, that you have the capacity for love. It’s the type of pain that reminds you how much someone meant to you. But as for the sting? My grandfather took that right out, by living a life that will be passed down from generation to generation, not from any material object, but from the way he lived, the model that will be emulated by my family and the families of many others who came in touch with the man.
Someone died in my family this month, but nothing died in me. No, as fallen leaves nourish the soil and the roots of the tree from which they fell, it sparked something new, helped me grow. I can still feel those rumblings of laughter, still hear his stories. I feel urges to treat people better, as my grandfather would have, to tip the waitresses extra for no other reason than just because, to live with humility, to love fully, wholly, no strings attached.
When we were leaving the golf course, I hugged my mom, and told her why I kept smiling to myself, suppressing the chuckles. In 2010, my grandfather and I played our last round at that course together, and on the second hole, my grandfather, whose sight and memory was beginning to fail him, couldn’t find his ball. My brothers, dad, and I looked and looked, scouring the rough, combing the fairway, until we realized that he had never teed off at all. He had completely forgotten. So we just dropped a ball in the fairway – that’s where he’d be anyway, 150 yards down the middle – and laughed and laughed, to the point that we were all in tears and had a sufficient ab workout.
Wouldn’t you know it, he’s still making me do the same thing.
Socrates once wrote that “a life lived thoroughly justifies its limitations.” My grandfather was human, and he therefore had his limitations. But because his life had indeed been lived so thoroughly, those human limitations have been stripped.
He’s still living, you see, just in a different capacity now. In death, he’s not confined to a single body, but instead inhabits dozens and dozens of others, the best parts of him beating in the hearts of anyone he came in touch with.
Of anyone he made laugh.
My grandfather seemed like a mountain to me once – enormous, both in size and spirit, with immeasurable strength and rugged beauty in just the way he was. That mountain has fallen, and when my father’s voice quavered delivering the eulogy, I saw my other mountain shake just a bit.
Soon, my friends and brothers and I will be the mountains for our next in kin. It’s equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. I don’t yet know how to be such a figure. I’m not sure I ever will.
All I know is this: In my grandfather, I’ve got a damn good example to model, an example that will one day beat in me, one that death cannot touch, rather just the opposite.
One that death can only make that much more alive.